Trinity 26 / 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 15, 2020 A+D
St. Matthew 25:31-46
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christ will judge all men on the Last Day. This is taught so clearly in the New Testament and is confessed so boldly in all three of our Creeds, that we have no need to prove that it is real or that it is coming. All Christians expect it.
Nonetheless, there has been confusion about it. To that end, we will take up two questions. First, does God reward the righteous for their works or not? If He so, how does that fit with Scripture’s teaching that we are saved by grace through faith apart from works of the Law? And secondly, should we fear the Last Day and tremble at the thought of it or is there nothing at all to fear since we are forgiven all our sins and are God’s children?
In the first place, God does reward the works of believers. In the parable, the sheep are honored for what they have done. They have been merciful even as God Himself is merciful. They have given as they have received. These works did not cause God to love them. He loved from the very foundation of the world, before they had done any good works. He prepared a place for them before they were born. They did not earn salvation and a place in His Kingdom by their works. Entrance into the Kingdom is not a wage that God gives to workers. Rather He invites the sheep into His Kingdom as His heirs. Inheritance is never earned. The works that God honors are proof of faith, and not faith itself, nor are they cause of the invitation and inheritance.
These works, rendered in faith and by faith, are, however, meritorious. They do not merit forgiveness of sins or justification, but they do merit other bodily and spiritual rewards. God gives these rewards both in this life and in the life to come. For the most part, though, He gives them in the life to come. Even when the reward is deferred, God notes the works. They are good. He loves them. For the most part the sheep are rewarded for their works when He glorifies them and invites them into the perfection and fullness of His Kingdom on the Last Day. This is because He wants them to be strengthened in this life by putting their flesh and its passions to death and not to grow soft or complacent through luxuries and rewards.
Justification is by grace through faith apart from works. Sinners are declared righteous and forgiven all their sins without any merit or worthiness for it. To say anything else is to rob Christ of His glory and deny the need for His death and resurrection. At the same time, God’s children do perform good works in faith. Those good works are real. They are valuable and loved by God and they will be rewarded.
Should we fear the Last Day? Yes, but as sons fear their loving father and not as slaves. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We are forgiven and confident in God’s grace. We know where we are heading. Nonetheless, we look to the Last Day with some trepidation. In the first place, it would be a horror beyond description to have our sins listed before our loved ones and shown to the world. That shame pales in comparison, however, to what the unbeliever will face in the fire prepared for Satan and his angels.
Thus do Christians cry to God for help against temptation with an eye on the Last Day. We pray: “O God, spare us from our wickedness and the weakness of our flesh! Keep us, by Your Word and Sacrament in the Faith.”
In the second place, we fear disappointing Our Father. We want to please Him. We are confident in His mercy. We know that the Father has judged the Son as guilty in order to declare us righteous. We are not ashamed of the horror of the cross but we love it. We preach Christ crucified. For that is how God loved the world and made Himself manifest to us. Therefore we know, based on that offering and sacrifice, that we will receive the inheritance that we have not earned, but into which we have been baptized and named. That promise endures. It does not lie. This moves us to act and to take pains to avoid sin, to curb our flesh. We tremble at the thought of Christ’s coming in glory and finding us in the midst of sin.
So it is that we pray: “Kyrie Eleison! Dear heavenly Father, let us not be drunk or engaged in sexual immorality or gossiping when Your return for judgment!”
So it is that even though we do fear the Last Day and wish to avoid its terrors, we also lift up our heads in eager expectation. None who believe in Christ shall be lost. Though we have often failed our God, we do not waver in our confidence that He loves us as a Father loves His children. He is patient and merciful to us.
We take comfort in the promises in Scripture and also in the many examples of His mercy provided. We are comforted by the example of the woman caught in adultery upon whom Christ would not cast a stone but who forgave her. We are encouraged by the example of the woman at the well. Christ spoke harshly to her but by those words He reconciled her to Himself and showed His mercy. We are consoled by the example of the penitent thief who, after a lifetime of sin, was welcomed into paradise. No one shall snatch us out of our Shepherd’s hand. What He has won for us on the cross, He bestows for free. Our sins, though they were like scarlet, are white as snow. We see in the sheep their wonder that their good works are praised. None of their sins are mentioned or judged. The faithful are not judged by their works. Christ has already been judged in their place.
Our goal then is to be ever mindful of the Last Day. Forgetfulness of this reality is the mother of false security. The Lord warns us: “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.” (Luke 21:34–35, NKJV)
Remembrance of the Last Day is the mother of true piety. Jesus says: “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near” (Luke 21:28, NKJV). St. Paul writes that we “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:23, NKJV). He also refers to the day of judgment as the day of redemption, writing in Ephesians 4 that we must “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30, NKJV).
The final judgment is driven by God’s justice. Though He is merciful and long-suffering, and though He has reconciled the world to Himself and His Father by His self-sacrifice on the cross, not all have believed in Him. God is not mocked. Those who do not believe in Him, whether they are openly unbelievers or are hypocrites, are condemned already. They will be judged by their works and God’s justice will be public. His saints will be vindicated. The sons of God be revealed. They are children by grace. They will be praised for their good works which show their faith as by a doting Father. But the wicked, the scoffers, those who walk according to their own lusts shall be put to shame. The day of judgment is the day of perdition for the ungodly and at the same time it is the day of redemption and refreshment for believers. On that day, at last, and as promised, we shall be relieved of temptation and persecution. We will be freed from our sins completely. The old Adam in us will put down once and for all.
What a glorious and wonderful day it will be! Let us never lose sight of it, but remain ever mindful of it that our flesh would be curbed and our faith encouraged, that we would learn patience in suffering and find comfort in God’s promises, and lift up our heads in eager anticipation.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.